This blog shares some of our thoughts about plain language, and the latest discussions about plain English and clear design in New Zealand, and around the world.

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21 December 2012

Of trees and carols and Merry Christmas

Two billion people around the world are celebrating the traditions of Christmas this month. Here at Write this week, we’ve been enjoying talking about the language and traditions of Christmas.

Did you know that the German monk Martin Luther (in the 16th century) may have been the first to bring a Christmas (fir) tree into his house after he was delighted by the sight of stars twinkling through its branches?

And did you know that Christmas carols were originally folk songs? That explains why most carols tell a story — they were the songs of the ordinary folk. People were forbidden from singing them inside church, but could sing them outside. It was Saint Francis of Assisi in Italy 1223 who brought carols into church.

The ‘merry’ in Merry Christmas first appeared in a letter in 1699, and more famously in Charles Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 1843.

The Oxford English Dictionary has been celebrating the language of Christmas too — take a look

… and Merry Christmas to you from us.

18 December 2012

Convoluted Christmas carols

We’ve found a few Christmas Carols translated into the ‘un-festive jargon of the modern workplace’. In 2009, our Australian friend Neil James took part in a radio station’s challenge to convert carols from ‘classic’ to ‘convoluted’. We thought it sounded like fun, and we’d love to repeat the challenge here in New Zealand. Take a look at the link, and post your own convoluted carols in the comments.

Here’s another example we found – a jargon-filled version of the Night Before Christmas.

If you don’t have time to give us a full carol, why not enter our Christmas competition and rewrite a song title?

You might aso enjoy reading some of the submissions to our 2011 competition, translations of the New Zealand version of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

14 December 2012

The eyes have it...

...your attention, that is.

I read a fascinating article this week, 'How to control an audience with your eyes'.

The article focuses on how a presenter can guide the attention of their audience by looking where they want the audience to look. A useful tactic, but I found the example pictures even more interesting. They show that this effect happens when we look at pictures of people, as well as at people in real life. So if your document has a picture of a person as well as some text, your reader will be influenced by what the person in the picture is looking at. Make sure it's working for you and not against you!

Read the full article at

05 December 2012

Listen to your readers!

I'm having such fun.

I'm doing a series of user tests on an investment statement for a KiwiSaver scheme. I'm using a couple of test methodologies. In the first part of the test, the reader goes through a section of the investment statement and talks about what they're thinking as they read. In the second part, they answer some specific questions about the content so that I can see whether the information was easy to find and understand.

It's fascinating watching different reading strategies at work. Yesterday, I conducted three tests and saw three completely different strategies.

Read everything

Reader one started at the beginning of the Key Information section, and read every line and every word. At each cross reference to more detailed information, she turned to that page and read the detail before going back to continue with the Key Information section..

Read summary in order, and skim the rest

Reader two started at the beginning of the Key Information section and read it through. She skipped a few paragraphs when the headings indicated that the content wouldn't interest her. She then started on the detailed information and skimmed through the headings, stopping to read detailed content that discussed questions she had in her mind from the Key Information section.

Read what looks interesting, and then find a real person to question

Reader three flipped through the document from the back. He then opened the Key Information section, skipped past the first page because he thought from the headings that it would tell him stuff he already knew, read a paragraph or two, skipped some more sections because he decided they didn't apply to him, and finished the Key Information section in record time. He then turned back to read in detail some of the information he skipped, this time turning for more detailed information at the cross references. Deciding that the detailed information was too detailed, he returned to the Key Information section and read most of it, coming up with a short list of questions that he said he'd phone in.

Write for your readers

To me, this demonstrates the power of headings in writing for your readers - and the power of user testing to find out whether you've succeeded.

Our client for this user testing have given us permission to write up the project for publication and presentations, so expect to hear more about what we did, what we discovered, and how we built on our findings to give our clients a better result.

I've got two more tests today and one tomorrow. I love my job!

30 November 2012

Congratulations to all the winners!

Congratulations to all winners in the 2012 Awards! Winners were announced last night at a ceremony hosted by Kiwibank and attended by all finalists and guests.

Highlights of the evening were the Cancer Society's win of the premier award for Best Organisation and MSD and IR's excitement at winning the new 'Turnaround' award.

And everyone was impressed that Nova Energy fronted up to collect the Brainstrain bin.
They got the warmest applause of the evening!

See all results and read the media release.

26 November 2012

Plain language evangelism – Equipping the disciples

Since Moses smashed the tablets – the stone ones with ten straightforward rules for living – we’ve been working very hard at transforming the simple into the complex, and confusing ourselves in the process. Joe Kimble, a plain language evangelist whose life work has been campaigning for plain legal language, is trying to alleviate the confusion by keeping things simple in his book, Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please.

This book is about a cause, but with a personal touch. For me, the personal touch adds interest and underpins the integrity of Joe Kimble’s work in an area that many would struggle to get excited about. You get a sense of mission from the personal story in Part 1.

While at law school, Joe never questioned legal style, despite having studied English at Amherst College and graduated with honours. It never occurred to him that anything was wrong. The awakening (Joe’s word) came while working for the Michigan Supreme Court when he stumbled across two texts – on legal drafting and on English usage – both of which promoted simplicity and clarity. Over the last 30 years Joe has taught legal writing at Thomas Cooley Law School, acted as a legal drafting consultant, and written and spoken widely about plain language and its benefits.

Early on, you find out what this book is not about. It’s not a manual focusing on the nuts and bolts of clear writing. But in Part 2 Joe adapts guidelines he has produced for printed legal documents to helpfully explain the elements of plain language. For more detailed practical advice, he invites his reader to consult the plain language literature.

As its subtitle states, this book presents the case for plain language in business, government and law. In making the case, Joe’s “good news” message for businesses and government agencies is simple – using plain language is a money-saver. Why? Because plain language promotes clear understanding, and clear understanding reduces transaction costs. Those who need to act on information can do so only to the extent they understand what is required. Misunderstanding generally means more time and expense.

The case is made in Parts 3, 4 and 5. Part 3 debunks 10 of the most common myths, which attack the utility and effectiveness of plain language. Part 4 highlights the concrete results of promoting plain language worldwide over the last 50 years via publications, laws, projects, events, organisations and consultancies. Finally, Part 5 provides summaries of 50 plain language initiatives that demonstrate savings in time and money for government and business, and a better experience for consumers.

The case, as presented, is compelling. But is that enough to change hearts and minds? I have my doubts, and I suspect Joe might agree with me. In his personal story he says this book reflects all his efforts over 35 years in sharing the techniques, debunking the myths, and promoting the benefits of plain language. Three times in one paragraph he says, “I’ve tried…” revealing a hint of disappointment, and confirming the truth of the adage “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”. You can also sense the frustration when at page 43, after asking isn’t 50 years of myth-busting enough, the author says:
In the end, you have to wonder just what it is that traditionalists are defending about traditional style. And you have to wonder whether they have had the slightest experience with plain language or given a moment’s thought to what it can accomplish.
Joe refers to his work as a journey. I like that metaphor. A journey’s progress depends on the conditions faced along the way. Occasionally it will be “plain” sailing with excellent progress, but more often than not the road will be rocky and progress will be slower, but progress nonetheless. In many cases complacency, rather than overt opposition, may be to blame for the perceived slow adoption of plain language in business and public communication.

So who will read this book? I think it will appeal mainly to those who are already convinced of the worth of plain language, or at least are favourably disposed towards it. They will be encouraged by the well constructed retrospective showing the gains that have been made, and hopefully will be inspired to build on the solid foundation of those gains.

Joe Kimble has demonstrated that he is not a lone voice crying in the wilderness. The seeds of plain language have been well and truly planted. Benefits are being reaped, but a rich harvest remains out there. Those who already acknowledge the value of plain language and want to promote it in their organisations will find this book a valuable resource. They will be able to confidently follow the author’s rallying call that ends this book: “Go forth and spread the word.” Hearts, as well as minds, need to be changed, and that’s a job for well-equipped disciples.

By Steve O’Hagan

Steve is an enrolled barrister and solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand and a plain language advocate. He has worked in the legal services industry in both the private and public sector for 22 years, specialising in knowledge and information management, and honing his writing skills.

23 November 2012

The old order passeth...

I have long had a love affair with encyclopaedias. When I was a child, we had several sets, pitched at different reading levels. We also subscribed to encyclopaedias delivered in weekly or monthly installments: Finding Out and The Book of Knowledge. I spent many happy hours browsing from one article to another, following a trail through ideas and concepts.

We bought the Encyclopaedia Britannica for our own children, all 16 volumes of it, plus yearly supplements. In a big clean out several years ago, we sent the whole set to a book fair. I had a moment of nostalgia, but had to acknowledge I'd not cracked a cover of any of the books for years. The electronic encyclopaedias we own are so much easier to use. And that doesn't even begin to take account of the wealth of knowledge available on the Internet.

Johnson's latest post talks about the end - and new beginning - of another great reference work. What do you think? Are printed dictionaries a thing of the past?

20 November 2012

Clarity or obfuscation?

Eric Rosenberg, writing in Forbes, suggests that business can save money if it learns plain language techniques from business.
Many organizations default to opacity and obfuscation in their communications. Clarity of purpose is crucial in business. But many within organizations have difficulty expressing that purpose – whether it’s in a mission statement, a news release, or an internal marketing presentation. The result isn’t surprising. As workers grapple for clarity, there are more meetings about meetings, more memos about memos, more time and resources spent clearing away the brush in an attempt to reveal a purpose.
 and the business world,  lengthy presentations often are rewarded over substance, and jargon is confused with intelligence. Real words are lost and, as a result, the ideas buried.
Read the article for more about the diagnosis and the solution.

14 November 2012

Hiding meaning isn’t 'plain English'

People think that plain English is about using simple words. Plain English goes beyond that. It is about making meaning clear.

This blog caught our eye. The writer used plain English to deconstruct a series of advertisements written in simple words.

Read Richard Boock's blog 'Plain talk about plain cigarette packs'

13 November 2012

Plain English on the coffee menu at Debenhams

UK store Debenhams has come to the rescue of coffee drinkers who'd like to try something new, but are nervous about seeking explanations of the confusing coffee names. The Daily Mail reports:
On the store's deconstructed menu, a caffe latte is described as 'really really milky coffee', cappuccino as 'frothy coffee' and caffe mocha as 'chocolate flavoured coffee'.
Black coffee is 'simple coffee, with or without milk', and an espresso shot is labelled as 'a shot of strong coffee'.

11 November 2012

Understanding the fiscal cliff

Yet another picturesque term from the language of economics is making headlines, especially since the US elections. This time it's the 'fiscal cliff'. Find out more in this article from The Atlantic. And is it a cliff or a slippery slope?

Read about the fiscal cliff

06 November 2012

Proofreaders 2; spelling checkers 0

We love our skilled proofreaders. They save us (and our clients) from looking dumb and careless. Sometimes, they can even save lives.

One of our clients sent us a snip from a response to a report on a major health and safety investigation. The response listed the recommendations then what the respondent planned to do about them. The final recommendation was mistyped to suggest that organisations have:
modern equipment and fatalities.
Ooops. We checked the report. Sure enough, it recommended:
modern equipment and facilities.
The error was particularly inept given that fatalities were the reason for the investigation.

Many years ago, I worked on an instruction guide for locomotive engine drivers that said something like:
The driver must halt the locomotive and must not proceed until the light is eliminated.
That was easy to rewrite.
Stop. Do not start until the light goes off.
It didn't make sense to me. I brooded about it, then rang the client. Sure enough, the word 'eliminated' should have been 'illuminated'. Final version.
Stop at the red light. Start when the green light goes on.
Spelling checkers don't replace proofreaders. Game, set, and match.

05 November 2012

Parking fines are always annoying — but the letter didn’t help

The tone of the letter I received from the rental car company telling me of my ‘Parking infringement’ didn’t help. They sent a standard letter that was written some time ago, maybe years ago.
Upon a search of our records, we have determined that you were renting the vehicle at the time the infringement was incurred. Please find enclosed a copy of your rental agreement, the terms and conditions of your hire, and the infringement for your reference.
I’m going to Christchurch in two weeks, and I’ll rent a car from someone else. Once standard letters are written, they are not OK for all time. Reviewing and updating the tone and the language of standard letters is an important part of managing client relationships. The rental car company needs to review and rewrite this one in contemporary, everyday language.

It’s extra annoying that the ‘infringement was incurred’ in Wellington, while I was renting in Auckland. By the time I found out there’d been a mix-up and the parking fine wasn’t mine, the rental car company had already debited my credit card ‘for the considerable paperwork involved in transferring an infringement, under the terms and conditions of your rental agreement (enclosed), a $58.49 (incl. GST and credit card surcharge) administration fee payable to … for processing each infringement. We noticed you had nominated a credit card for further charges and have therefore processed the charge accordingly. A receipt is enclosed.’

‘Kind regards’ at the end didn’t quite fit.

Here are some ways of thinking about tone when you write.
  • Tone is the impression the writer makes on the reader.
  • Tone is about considering how the reader will feel.
  • Tone is a matter of attitude: your choice of words, your sentence structure, and your content combine to display your attitude to your subject and your reader.
  • Tone will win you customers, or lose you business.
By Rosemary Knight

30 October 2012

Are your ebooks full of typos?

When I first got my Kindle, I spent some time considering what I'd buy to read on it. My friends were enjoying revisiting Dickens and Hugo without the inconvenience of the weight and volume of those large tomes. But I decided on Jane Austen. Imagine having her complete works at the touch of a button, and all for free. But when these ebooks materialised in my device, I noticed that I'd ended up with the 'Compete Works of Jane Austen'. Somehow it took a bit of the excitement away.

To be fair, the print book I'm reading at the moment has several repeated paragraphs. (I've checked, and it's not just that I'm falling asleep while reading and going over bits I've already read!)

What are your thoughts on the quality of ebooks? Do the typos bother you? Or is the convenience of an e-reader enough to keep the excitement alive?

Read this blog by Laura June, and you'll find out some of the 'dirty little seccrets' about typos in ebooks.

Why is an ebook ever riddled with typos?

29 October 2012

Man is a curious animal...

Last week, Johnson posted on gendered language. If our workshop participants are typical, many of you have views on this topic. Here's a taste of what Johnson had to say:

In the history of English and other languages, men have magnanimously declared that grammatically or semantically masculine words could include women. In grammar, the traditional view is that the male pronoun is sex-neutral in sentences like "Everyone should find his seat and take out his notebook." And the scope of "man", "mankind", Jefferson's "all men are created equal", it was explained to women, included them too. But this has been a cause for feminist chagrin in modern times. Feminists and those hoping to avoid annoying people along these lines cautiously opt for "people" or "humankind" in place of "man" and "mankind".

More specific terms have been contentious too. At one point in history, "policemen" and "firemen" were not controversial because there were no policewomen and firewomen. Now, "police officers" and "firefighters" are the generic plurals of the day. But the conversion to sex-neutral terms has been patchy and inconsistent. The lowest enlisted ranks in America's navy are "seamen" — regardless of the sex of the sailors in question. The same applies to "airmen" in America's air force. Britain's Royal Navy has only "seamen" — but the Royal Air Force has "airwomen" as well as "airmen".

Other traditional terms are in similar disarray. Female Hollywood types are "actresses", uncontroversially, but many women of the serious New York stage call themselves "actors". No self-respecting female writer of verse calls herself a "poetess" any more. "Waitress" is holding its own against "server", but "stewardess" has quickly yielded to "flight attendant". "Hostess" is harmless but "mistress" is tainted.